PINEHURST, N.C. — The official logo of the 2014 U.S. Open features a cartoon mascot the folks at Pinehurst Resort hold dear. His name is Golf Lad. He wears baggy clothes and a bucket hat. And in the logo commemorating this week’s tournament, Golf Lad offers a relaxed grin while warmly hugging the championship trophy.
While that’s a pleasant welcoming image, it’s an inaccurate representation of how most of the 156 players in the field have felt navigating a course with so many decisions and so many potential trouble spots.
More often than not, as players completed Thursday’s opening round, they left Pinehurst No. 2 with an exhausted gaze and a puffed-cheeks exhale, just happy to have survived.
Birdies, the consensus was, will be few and far between. And pars need to be savored with all the scrambling so many of them require.
“Pars are important,” Matt Kuchar noted after making 13 of them on his way to a 1-under 69. “Fours are better than 5s. Fives are better than 6. Pars at a U.S. Open are maybe more important. And more difficult.”
Even first-round leader Martin Kaymer, who made six birdies and posted a 5-under 65 for an early three-shot cushion, confessed he started the week with modest aspirations.
Asked Wednesday if he had a final score he would be happy with when the tournament ended, Kaymer answered honestly.
“I said 8 over par,” he admitted.
The firmness of the course and the taxing challenges of Pinehurst’s domed greens were a concern. The course layout offered plenty of trouble as well.
So how did Kaymer explain the blitz he delivered in the late afternoon Thursday? For one thing, he said, the greens seemed softer and more receptive than they had been during practice rounds the previous three days. For another, he has found a mental zone this week, still savoring his May triumph at The Players Championship and adding to the confidence that provided.
Kaymer hit 13 of 14 fairways Thursday and a respectable 11 greens in regulation. Of his six birdies, four came on putts from inside 5 feet.
“I just didn’t make many mistakes,” he said.
He leads a second-place quartet sitting at 2 under: Graeme McDowell, Kevin Na, Fran Quinn and Brendon de Jonge, all of whom prioritized patience Thursday.
McDowell made only one bogey, at the par-4 fourth hole, and the 2010 U.S. Open champ quickly flipped that with an eagle on No. 5. And while he made only one birdie, he relished his 15 pars and surmised that the winner might complete the week with a total of 10 birdies, maybe a dozen max.
“I spent the last few days preparing myself mentally for the challenge,” McDowell said. “Just knowing that this golf course wasn’t going to give much and it was only going to take. I felt like I got my head in the right place.”
After 18 holes, less than 10 percent of the field (15 players) sits under par. And it’s widely expected that number will continue shrinking toward Sunday as the course firms up and the setup grows more difficult.
Among the big names, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler are part of a 20-player pack at even par. Rory McIlroy is at 1 over. And Masters champ Bubba Watson might struggle to make the cut after a shaky 76.
As for Kaymer, he left Pinehurst on Thursday ecstatic to have gone so low but with plenty of perspective on how to soak in his surprising 65.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “But I’m not freaking out about it. It’s the first round of a very, very important tournament. … That first round is a good start. But that’s it.”
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